Tackling plastics pollution – BIOENGINEER.ORG

Despite the changes that are changing society and that plastic materials have brought to humanity, there is no doubt that they pose new challenges for us in dealing with the large amounts of plastic waste we create, from oil-based chemicals used to make products to microplastics. found everywhere after the decomposition of plastic in the environment.

Despite the changes that are changing society and that plastic materials have brought to humanity, there is no doubt that they pose new challenges for us in dealing with the large amounts of plastic waste we create, from oil-based chemicals used to make products to microplastics. found everywhere after the decomposition of plastic in the environment.

Finding a plastic pollution solution that will work in the lab and in the real world will require a diverse team of innovative individuals with expertise that transcends incredible talent at the University of Delaware. That’s why researchers from UD’s College of Engineering and Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The School of Public Policy and Administration joins forces with experts from the University of Kansas and Pittsburg State University.

“The practices by which society now operates are not actually sustainable,” said Raul Lobo, Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Chair of the UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, which leads the research efforts for UD. “We need materials that minimize our dependence on fossil fuels and that enable consumers to recycle plastic products efficiently and easily. To this end, the UD-KU team will develop new molecules that can be used to make a new generation of environmentally friendly plastics. ”

The National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Encourage Competitive Research awarded the group $ 4 million in funding to do just that. Approximately $ 1.4 million of these funds will go to UD to support this major research effort to develop processes to transform “biomass”, such as agricultural by-products, into commercially viable plastic materials and to chemically deconstruct such plastics efficiently and effectively to could be recycled and reused.

The UD faculty members in the team are Professor Hui Fang from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing, Professor Kalim Shah from the Biden School and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professors Marianthi Ierapetritou, Lobo, Marat Orazov and Dionisios Vlachos.

Lobo, who also has a joint professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the project will focus on developing polymers that behave like polyethylene terephthalate or PET, a very common type of plastic found in consumer products such as water bottles, fleece and food wrapping film. A polymer is a very long molecule, such as protein, starch, or DNA, that is made up of repetitive building blocks, such as adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) in DNA molecules. Different polymers are formed by weaving different building units. Once long enough, they can be easily melted, shaped or shaped, and hardened after cooling

“We have ideas about polymers that we think will make materials that are better than PET in many ways,” Lobo hinted. “Now we have to prove it.”

From biomass to building blocks

The goal is not only to find new materials with good and useful properties, but to do so by using building block molecules that come from biomass (rather than fossil fuels like oil) and that are designed to be recyclable.

“We are trying to make this society more sustainable by developing technology that has the potential to be practical,” Lobo said. “The material we’re trying to make … looks like the plastic we’re using today, but it comes from biomass.”

For example, plants also produce sugars with less carbon than the sugar we eat, and these sugars and their derivatives can be used as building blocks for plastics. The material must be stable and strong enough to last another life, like, say, a plastic bag. Focusing on non-edible and non-toxic biomass – think corn stalks or harvested sugar cane remnants – researchers will try to prepare new building blocks for plastics so they don’t compete with food sources, aren’t dependent on fuel fossils and can be easily assembled and assembled. reassemble.

Then these engineers have to figure out how to translate science into real social benefit. It also means exploring the political and economic elements associated with moving the fundamental building blocks of a product used in almost everything in our daily lives.

The practical implications of this paper will certainly relate to costs. Six decades of experience in the production of PET and its use in multiple products means six decades of being able to find cost-effectiveness along the way. It will still take some time for all new building blocks that could replace PET, even if they are superior in performance and for the environment, to find all possible efficiency and cost savings.

Over the next four years, up to five UD graduate students will have a role in this interdisciplinary research, from machine learning to be used to research existing research literature and knowledge gaps, to component chemistry, to economics of their application and recycling.

“There is a huge amount of information there,” said Hui Fang, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing. “We are trying to develop a technique based on machine learning that can first automatically extract information from the literature and then allow researchers to see what is missing.”

From wastefulness to sustainability

With so much waste in the world – up to a third of the food resources produced are actually wasted – it would be incredibly useful to find ways to reuse these discarded corn husks or sugarcane fiber residues, especially if we try to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. gases. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, experts stressed that exceeding that level of warming would not only be catastrophic, but would be impossible if world nations could not curb their reliance on fossil fuels.

The idea of ​​a “circular economy” in which products are produced, consumed and reused – as opposed to the “linear” way the world currently produces, consumes and throws away most products – could literally be the change the world needs. From the molecular beginnings of plastic products, energy is used and waste is generated. But is it possible to reduce this amount of energy and can the waste be reused in some other production process?

“We’re thinking about how we can take the waste stream and make new building blocks,” said Dionisios Vlachos, Unidel Dan Rich Chair of Energy, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, director of the Catalytic Center for Energy Innovation and director of the Delaware Energy Institute. “This is a global issue.”

Today, most plastics (and many other products we consume every day) are made from petrochemicals. Most plastic is not easy to recycle because once it breaks into original pieces, it is difficult to reassemble and so ends up as waste. UD researchers are looking for new chemicals that can be easily produced from biomass and that not only produce outstanding plastic, but can, with little effort, be converted into raw materials for new plastic products.

“If we don’t do something today, things will be very bad in the future,” Vlachos said. “There are many waste streams with multiple social health problems. They need to be addressed globally. If we produce renewable plastic, it would be great, but that’s only part of the story. “

A holistic view

While some on the team will focus on the chemical engineering of the molecules themselves, Ierapetritou and her team will analyze these new materials on their potential environmental impact, economic costs and whether the new product will be practically scalable from a small lab to a commercialized solution.

In this project, Century of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Bob and Jane Gore Marianthi Ierapetritou and her team will analyze proposed new materials for bioregradable plastics for potential environmental impacts, economic costs and feasibility.

“Of course, this goes back to changing people’s culture or introducing different policies, which is one of the things we hope to explore,” said Ierapetritou, who chairs Bob and Jane Gora’s centenary for chemical and biomolecular engineering at UD. “But you need policies, you need incentives to make the change that needs to be made.”

What they want to create can be expensive – probably too expensive to compete without incentives. But even if some of the new materials are used in plastics production, it could still help reduce the pollution associated with creating a plastic product with 5% or 10% biomass, Lobo said.

“Our scientists and engineers say they can do it in the lab and they can increase it. But where is his acceptance or adoption? ” said Shah, who will explore the economic and environmental implications of plastic substitution and its potential in real-world markets.

“I think there is now a real awareness of connecting the disciplines we are very well known for at UD – chemistry and chemical engineering – with the political and macroeconomic business aspects of the problem,” he said. “I am really happy to have colleagues who are willing to include my perspective and take a multidisciplinary approach to us so that we can move forward together.”

If they find solutions they believe exist, it will be years before a plant capable of producing thousands of tons of polymers goes online. Building blocks derived from biomass could also be a boon for farmers and companies working with agricultural products that could become plastics in the future.

There is also the potential to be able to create something even better: plastic from biological sources that can last longer or require less material.

Their work will also closely examine how to deconstruct these new polymers so that they can be a truly recyclable product. Lobo said he had no doubt they could succeed in that regard. But whatever they discover, they will publish their findings and make them available to other researchers.

“If we succeed, we could reduce the amount of plastic or the amount of oil we consume to some degree,” Lobo said. “There are chemical reasons why some polymers have these good properties, but others do not. Based on this information, we will be able to provide better products for society over time. That’s what engineers do. “

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